The Three Hagges wood-meadow project began in 2012, with two aims:
The creation of a new ecosystem with the aim of restoring lost biodiversity to an arable landscape, and the creation of future ancient woodland.
The motivation was a need to address the losses that are by now familiar to many of us: 97% lowland meadows, a similar percentage of coppiced ancient woodland, and many, many miles of mixed and ancient hedgerows. Along with them – these systems in which our native plants form the base of an ecological pyramid – we have seen declines of many invertebrates, including multiple pollinating species that depend on them for pollen, nectar and hosts for their young. And with those, the decline of songbirds that feed their young on the larvae of said invertebrates, and so on up the chain.
Most of these declines have happened over the past fifty years – that’s during my lifetime. It is the commonplace biodiversity of my childhood, and that of the project Director, Rosalind Forbes Adam, that we’ve let slip between the cracks. Among the legacies are poorer baselines for generations that follow us, and a far lower bar for beauty and biodiversity.
As David Attenborough has said:
It is the responsibility of us as adults to provide [children] the chance to connect with nature.
No one will protect what they don’t care about & no one will care about what they’ve never experienced.
Since we began in 2012, on what was then a barley field, we have created a wood-meadow; a ten-hectare site that now holds wet and dry lowland meadows into which has been planted a nascent woodland of some ten thousand native trees and shrubs in 28 species. Volunteers planted about 40% of our trees. We aimed higher than just another plantation with a ground flora of nettles, docks, brambles and thistles. And that can only be achieved with detailed attention in the planning the design, the preparation, the seed selections, and, most of all, in the continuing management plan. Our methodology was precise and key to our success.
Our design was unusual in that it combined grassland and woodland, with meadow margins merging into a woodland edge of flowering and fruiting shrubs and small trees, through to a canopy of forest trees. It was our patron, George Peterken, the forest ecologist, who pointed out that what we were creating was a wood-meadow.
What is a wood-meadow?
Wood-meadows probably originated 7,000 – 8,000 years ago to periods of early settlement. They are sparsely wooded areas of coppice managed copses, with a regularly cut and/or grazed herb layer beneath and between, and they were multifunctional, providing hay, grazing, hanging pasture (tree foliage for animal fodder), wood fuel, timber and charcoal, berries, mushrooms, nuts and botanical medicines.
Most pertinent to the aims of Hagge Woods Trust is that the wood-meadow ecosystem is one of the most diverse plant communities anywhere on the planet – 76 plant species per m2! The composition reflects longstanding agricultural activities, and continuous management sustains the diversity. Diversity declines rapidly within five years if left unmanaged.
It suggests that the word management – often anathema to advocates of rewilding – can be reframed to describe an intimate form of human engagement with the natural world, and that farming and biodiversity can coexist. And if we take lessons from one of oldest forms of land management, our attempt to recreate this ecosystem in the interests of biodiversity is achievable.
Why is it so diverse?
… the point is that with woodland and grassland conditions and the transitions between them, you have all the elements of diversity that are further intensified because the amount of shade fluctuates and the amount of grazing fluctuates. The margins are not static, and that’s the important thing. The boundaries between the two habitats move to and fro and it’s this very dynamism that makes them more diverse. George Peterken 02-06-2016
Much of our lost & declining flora and fauna are associated with these margins and transitions. So many of the plant species which have disappeared depend on precisely these sort of transitional habitats – species which are neither truly meadow nor woodland plants but those that depend on rides, edges, margins and banks. It is in these transitional zones that the highest proportions of woodland and meadow fauna are also found.
George Peterken said recently that the concept of the wood-meadow is the equivalent of his and Oliver Rackham’s coinage of the term Ancient Woodland and it has the potential to reframe our perceptions, and the power to engage, educate, inform and inspire in the same way. It is part of a sea change in the way we see conservation, from being something about protecting nature from people, to being about engaging people with nature. And places like Three Hagges wood-meadow are really important for that.
What have we achieved?
From a state of ‘biodiversity blank canvas’ within three years, we now have recorded over 200 species of meadow flowers and grasses, each of which is a host to pollinating and other insects. We have pollinators: butterfly, moths, bumble bees, solitary bees and hoverflies, as well as dragonflies and damselflies at the pond, and many of these are breeding populations (over 400 invert species recorded in all). The meadow hosts barn owls, kestrels, buzzards and herons, song birds are moving in, and, in summer, swallows are plentiful – gathering a shimmer of invertebrates at the meadow surface. We have kept an extensive record of the species that have arrived so that we can share our success with others.
Imagine – if we can achieve this within three years – how much more in ten, twenty, thirty? Imagine such ecosystems on brownfield sites, on urban patches, road verges, beside cycle tracks, in schools grounds, on corners and patches of farmland, in gardens.
Here are the tools to reverse some of the losses of diversity, to create a mosaic of interconnected diversity hot spots across the landscape, and a vast educational resource on the doorstep of all – for children, their parents and grandparents.
Lin Hawthorne has had parallel careers in practical horticulture, ecology and writing and editing horticultural reference books, but has been a wood-meadow maker for the last four years at Three Hagges Wood Meadow. If you’d like to find out more about wood-meadows and the project’s progress, see their wonderful website or follow Lin on Twitter.